UConn Bad for Women's Basketball? Not by a Long Shot

Natalie Weiner@natalieweinerStaff WriterMarch 23, 2018

Connecticut players reacts Gabby Williams' number 15 revealed on the UConn Huskies of Honor wall during Senior Night ceremonies before an NCAA college basketball game against South Florida, Monday, Feb. 26, 2018, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Jessica Hill/Associated Press

This is March, which means brackets, buzzer-beaters and breathless pontificating on how the consistent success of the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team is actually bad for the sport. It’s not a new conversation: UConn won its first title in 1995, another one in 2000, then three in a row from 2002 to 2004, and six more since. Since the Huskies became briefly unstoppable in the early aughts, people have offered the same take year after year, lamenting how Geno Auriemma and his team are ruining women’s college basketball with their overwhelming edge in talent, win streaks and large margins of victory.

It appears to make no difference that the argument is both unoriginal and unsupported by any quantifiable metric. It persists, requiring rebuttals like this one to explain again and again how the high bar set by many generations of UConn teams has fueled the growth of women’s basketball and, subsequently, the growth of competitiveness therein.

If this annual dialogue has taught us anything, it’s that the people who insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that UConn is “bad for women’s basketball” are the ones actually hurting the sport—not the Huskies’ exceptional athletes and coaching staff. What is presented as concern for the welfare of women’s basketball is, in practice, an excuse for ignoring the sport altogether. The trope only endures because of deep-rooted double standards for female athletes and mainstream sports media’s unwillingness to challenge them in any substantive way.

“It's a silly argument to say that excellence or greatness is a bad thing,” says Joe Haigh, coach of the St. Francis (Pa.) women’s basketball team, whose loss by 88 points to UConn in the first round of this year’s NCAA tournament ignited the latest round of concern-trolling. “I would be surprised if anybody who said how bad it was for the game actually watched the game. I feel bad that Geno and UConn have to reply back to those people—it's not fair to them; they didn't do anything wrong. They're great, they played hard, they competed, and so did we.”

Haigh, in his sixth year as St. Francis' head coach, says his program is growing, thanks to the team’s success (it went 24-10 in 2017-18) and players like junior Jessica Kovatch, currently the No. 2 scorer in the country with an average of 24.4 PPG. “Our attendance is up locally, and we're getting a ton of support, even though around here they always say they'd never go watch ‘girl's basketball,’” he adds, chuckling. The team is hoping to replicate Mississippi State’s story: lose big to UConn (in MSU’s case, by 60 points in the 2016 tournament) and then take down the Huskies the following year in dramatic fashion.

Coach Geno Auriemma watches as UConn routs St. Francis 140-52 in the NCAA tourney.
Coach Geno Auriemma watches as UConn routs St. Francis 140-52 in the NCAA tourney.Jessica Hill/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

“My main argument against this narrative is Mississippi State,” says Rebecca Lobo, one of ESPN’s lead women’s tournament analysts, a Hall of Famer and a UConn alum who led the team to its first title back in 1995. “[Mississippi State point guard] Morgan William became a household name not just because she hit a game-winning shot, but because she hit a game-winning shot to beat UConn.” Connecticut’s dominance made the underdog’s ultimate triumph that much more captivating—a narrative that’s common in coverage of men’s dynasties.

Nevertheless, most of the UConn complaints begin similarly: “All sports dynasties are boring and bad—close games are more exciting,” a caveat designed to anticipate allegations of sexism. There have been occasional arguments that Alabama football, the New England Patriots and Golden State Warriors, among others, are doing a disservice to their respective sports by diminishing competitiveness and making outcomes more predictable. The numbers, though, rarely support those arguments, for reasons that are fairly self-evident: How many kids today want to grow up to be Steph Curry? Why do so many Warriors away games draw impressive numbers of fans of both teams eager to see Golden State play?

“Fans—love or hate the particular team in question—can't get enough when it comes to dynasties,” says Noah Cohan, a lecturer in American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in fandom and American sports. "Saying UConn is bad for women's basketball is like saying the 1920s and 1930s Yankees were bad for baseball, or that the 1960s and 1970s UCLA Bruins were bad for men's college basketball. It's just nonsensical when you think about what most fans are looking for out of sports: competitive excellence and familiar stories."

The Bruins are one of the most frequently cited examples in discussions about how UConn’s excellence is a net positive for women’s basketball and logical part of its evolution. “Women's basketball is pretty much a function of Title IX—so, the ‘70s—whereas men's college basketball started about 50 years earlier,” says Joel Maxcy, a sports economist at Drexel University specializing in labor and antitrust issues. “If you go back 50 years, you've got the UCLA dynasty in men's basketball, and the UConn dynasty is somewhat comparable to that.”

Compared to men’s basketball, women’s basketball is still in its adolescence. As more and more girls play, there will be more competition—as there is in this year’s tournament, where a slate of formidable teams (including two No. 11 seeds) have advanced to the Sweet 16. In the meantime, the best high school players will continue to gravitate to the best programs—like UConn, or UCLA in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Assuming the sport continues to grow, it will eventually reach the same kind of parity (for the most part, a few dominant programs that take turns winning the title) that exists on the men’s side—which the people who assert that UConn is hurting the women’s game believe is so integral to attracting fans.

But there is, according to the experts B/R spoke with, some distinction between what people say they want in a sporting event and what actually gets them to tune in or show up. “People say they'd rather see a close game than a blowout, but then there's always this intrigue with teams that are super-good,” Maxcy says. The idea that total parity is the most desirable state for any field of sports competition is promoted heavily by teams and leagues, not because there’s any evidence that fans actually prefer it, but because it’s a great way to cut costs.

“Management and ownership justify almost everything they do to curtail salaries—salary caps, the draft—by saying, ‘We need to maintain competitive balance or people won't be interested,’” adds Maxcy. That myth has percolated down to fans, who now see those measures—as well as the NCAA’s carefully guarded amateurism—as necessary to ensure the sports they follow remain entertaining. Yet, for example, the College Football Playoff National Championship delivered its second-highest ratings on ESPN this year, as Alabama took home its...17th national title.

The UConn Huskies huddle around coach Geno Auriemma.
The UConn Huskies huddle around coach Geno Auriemma.Chris Marion/Getty Images

“Not only are men’s sports dynasties celebrated generally, but when they play other teams, the sports media frames that as a David and Goliath story,” says Cheryl Cooky, an associate professor of American studies at Purdue University and co-author of No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sport and the Unevenness of Social Change. “Even though the outcome might be predictable, there's an exciting frame that's placed upon that game. Can someone beat Duke or Alabama or the Golden State Warriors?”

In men’s sports, a team’s dynasty status is usually an asset, not a liability—and the rare critique (or more apt, clickbait thinkpiece) is drowned out by the flood of positive coverage. In women’s college basketball, a half-baked, redundant UConn take might be the only coverage of the tournament on an entire site or channel. “If these ‘UConn is bad for basketball’ opinions were part of a scenario where we were getting all this information about and coverage of the women's tournament, then they wouldn't be egregious,” Cooky continues. “But instead, there’s a total saturation of men's March Madness media coverage and information—and then for the women, you just get that one thing.”

Perversely, that reality is further proof of UConn’s importance to the women’s game. “UConn will get covered places that don't cover any other women's basketball,” says Lobo. “If you turn on SportsCenter, or any other mainstream sports show, we'll have a highlight from UConn, and that might be it. If UConn weren't there, that doesn't mean that suddenly that time is going to be spent on highlights of other teams. It just means there's going to be no women's sports content.”

Instead of reporting, the vast majority of national women’s college basketball coverage and discussion is based on generalizing individual opinions: “I find women’s basketball boring and uncompetitive” becomes “Women’s basketball is boring and uncompetitive” mostly because there’s so little incentive for people talking about it to do research. Who’s going to fact-check them? “When people say women's basketball isn't interesting, they're just saying they don't find it interesting—and if they're listening to the dominant cultural narrative about it, why would they?” says Nicole LaVoi, co-director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “They're being told that it's boring.”

“Mike Golic is talking about it on the radio, or that guy is writing about it in USA Today—and none of them even bothered to talk to me to see what we were thinking,” says Haigh of the torrent of national coverage about the St. Francis-UConn game. “They didn't even care enough to do a little research on the thing. They had the story they wanted to tell and didn't bother to check any other option out.”  

Rebecca Lobo at her Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
Rebecca Lobo at her Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony.Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Lobo has been confronted with baseless criticism of UConn and women’s basketball for her entire adult life, and for her, it’s fine if people aren’t interested. “It’s two different arguments: If someone says, ‘I find women's basketball boring,’ OK—watch whatever you want to watch,” she says. “But to say it's bad, or bad for the game, I think the only response can be, ‘What are the facts that back up your argument?’ Because I can tell you a bunch of reasons why UConn winning has not been bad for the game. Can you imagine if last year at the Super Bowl, somebody had said to Bill Belichick, ‘Has your success been bad for football?’”

The sexism of “UConn is bad for women’s basketball” goes much deeper than the fact that the claim is inaccurate. One of the reasons the team repeatedly inspires this same conversation is it continues to buck the cliche that women are bad at sports. “These articles are indicative of the cultural discomfort that we have with women's physical dominance,” says Cooky. “When young girls and women read pieces that suggest their dominance might be detrimental to the game itself, that reinforces a larger cultural narrative that women should never be dominant,” LaVoi adds. Saying UConn is too successful also has the potential to discourage girls and women from pursuing sports at all—if being the best still isn’t good enough, why bother?

On the flip side, alleging a lack of competitiveness is an easy way to write off women’s basketball altogether. Haigh sees the logical extension of the “UConn is bad for women’s basketball” take as an existential criticism of the sport. “One of the things that’s not said explicitly is, ‘If it’s not going to be competitive, why play that first-round game? Why even have the tournament?’” he says. “The whole attitude is basically telling women’s basketball teams, ‘Go away.’ But no one says that if you’re not Alabama, you just shouldn’t have a football team.”

Even with the national media’s insidious ambivalence toward women’s basketball, there are some bright spots. “Despite the fact that it's rarely covered in sports media—and when it is, it's these damaging narratives—people are still interested in women’s basketball,” says LaVoi. “It should tell you something about how strong the sport is when ratings and attendance rise in spite of these kinds of pieces.”

“‘UConn is bad for the game’ is an argument that's made once a year, in the first or second round of the tournament, almost exclusively by people who don't cover or watch women's basketball,” says Lobo. “It's just someone going, ‘I'm going to parachute in and get more @-replies on Twitter than I get all year by making these inflammatory comments.’ Normally I try to ignore it, because I don't want to feed the trolls, but it's just like, why every year?”

So essentially, if you are tempted to criticize the UConn women’s team for being just too dang good, again—don’t. Yes, even if it wins the tournament a 12th time this year (which it very well might!). Instead, use these few maddening weeks to learn about some of the teams aiming to give them a run for their money.

“If you actually invest an hour into watching, instead of just reacting to a score you see on SportsCenter, there's great stuff there,” Lobo concludes. “But people are often lazy, and so they don't spend that hour to figure out what women's basketball is all about. Introducing them to all the great storylines and players, that's our job.

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